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Story Publication logo April 13, 2008

Kenyans Tap Sun to Make Dirty Water Sparkle

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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In Kenya's massive shanty town of Kibera water is often unhealthy and far more expensive than in more affluent neighborhoods. An effort to put distribution and purification in the hands of local women is producing sparkling results.

The long rainy season in Kenya has begun and sudden storms regularly burst over Nairobi. Many welcome the downpours, which signal the end of another dry summer and wash the steamy crowded capital clean each morning.

In Kibera, a massive slum of rusty tin roofs and makeshift homes spreading out from the southwest of the city, the rain is turning the twisting dirt roads and alleyways to thick red mud.

Here in one of largest slums in the world--a flashpoint for violence stemming from Kenya's parliamentary elections in December--the rain is causing open sewers to swell and uncollected garbage to rush in rivers of tattered plastic and human waste through backyards.

Potable water is one of the hardest resources to secure in Kibera and the torrents now being unleashed will offer no relief to the estimated 1 million people here who must use their meager wages--usually less than a dollar a day--to buy water for drinking and cleaning.

On a good day, 20 liters (5.5 gallons) of water in Kibera costs 5 cents, far more than what piped water costs in Nairobi's wealthy areas. But when water is rationed, or when vendors block pipes to manufacture shortages, prices can skyrocket to five times the usual cost and an impossible price for most residents here. Much of this water has been contaminated with sewage.

Now, a Nairobi-based group working to bring affordable clean water to Kibera, the Kenya Water for Health Organization, is trying to replace water vendors with women's groups who are accountable to each other to keep price gouging at bay. This informal system relies on the belief that community-driven women's collectives will handle this precious resource fairly because of their shared hardships.

"There is inadequate water supply, no toilets, no access roads, no lighting and no drainage," says Paul Ochieng, assistant project officer for Kenya Water for Health Organization. "These people need water, clean and safe water."

Conflict and Volatility

Last week riots erupted across Kibera after power-sharing talks between the government and opposition leaders stalled.

Earlier this year some water pipes were destroyed and one of the water organization's programs has been suspended until the situation in one volatile portion of the slum is stabilized.

An estimated 1 billion people across the globe live in slums, a figure that is expected to double by 2030. Inadequate infrastructure in these communities, often a result of government hesitancy to provide services to illegal settlements, leaves much of this growing population to struggle alone for their basic needs.

In Kibera the residents who serve as bustling Nairobi's factory workers, security guards, cooks, maids, nannies and drivers come home to a slum without a sewage system, garbage pick-up, adequate schools or running water.

The government's inattention extends to regular policing. The ensuing lawlessness and corruption also affects its water and network of vendors.

Some vendors buy their water from Nairobi Water Company for a mere 2 cents per thousand liters (265 gallons). Others, unwilling to pay even that, pirate water out of the city, jerry-rigging cheap plastic pipes back to big tanks set up throughout the slum. Almost all turn around and sell the water to residents at exorbitant prices.

Building New Delivery System

The Kenya Water for Health Organization, with the help of its many community coordinators and volunteers, is attempting to challenge the vendors by creating a water delivery system built on the strength, knowledge and experience of Kibera's women.

Women are linked with water all over the world, and wherever there are water access and sanitation issues women feel the impact first. They are most often the water handlers, finding it, fetching it and carrying it home. They are also the ones whose traditional duties of cooking, cleaning and laundering require the most water. And they are the ones who care for those who fall sick from dirty water, most often their own children.

Over the past five years, women in Makina, a neighborhood of 150,000 in Kibera where the Kenya Water for Health Organization operates, have been forming organizations and buying water from Nairobi Water Company, piping it to their tanks through sturdy pipes, and selling it in their community at a reasonable price while teaching residents basic sanitation techniques. Because little water infrastructure exists inside the slum, each tank must be connected by new piping to the water main just outside Kibera.

While the Kenya Water for Health Organization's handful of tanks provides some of the community with safer water, not everyone in Makina is served by them. And the sometimes chaotic environment means that the organization can't always ensure that their water stays uncontaminated.

One of their most successful sanitation programs teaches women in the community solar water disinfection, commonly called SODIS. The technique is remarkably simple. Users fill ordinary clear plastic bottles with contaminated water and place them in direct sunlight for six hours, usually on the corrugated metal roofs of their homes. There the water is sanitized by ultraviolet rays.

Safe, Cheap Treatment

While it's hard to believe a system this basic can actually work, regular testing of treated water, both by the water organization and outside institutions, has consistently shown the solar method to be as effective as others at a considerably lower cost than boiling or chemical treatment.

This system has spread to a majority of Makina households due largely to the efforts of female volunteers.

"At Kenya Water for Health Organization we believe that when you train one woman you train many more people than when you train one man," says Joshua Otieno, head officer for the solar project.

No one shares this philosophy more than Kaltuma Tahir, a 48-year-old mother of six who has been nicknamed "Mama SODIS" by the community for her enthusiasm in spreading information about water and sanitation.

Tahir raised her children on the expensive and dirty water of Kibera. She tells of regular illnesses in her family due to waterborne diseases and late nights agonizing over whether or not she could afford even the transportation costs of getting an ailing child to Kenyatta Hospital a few miles down the road.

These days, she spends her time championing for water rights in her community, picking her way through the cramped lanes and across the rickety homemade bridges that connect neighbors here.

"My opinion is that the women's community will charge less for water because they know the problems of women," says Tahir, rising from a handmade bench in the bare room stacked with empty plastic bottles that serves as the water organization's Kibera office. "The other vendors, they charge more because they are only earning for themselves."


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